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This is how the Thief thinks. He serves death, the vacuum, the unknown. He’s always waiting. Always there.
Seventeen-year-old Nina Barrows knows all about the Thief. She’s intimately familiar with his hunting methods: how he stalks and kills at random, how he disposes of his victims’ bodies in an abandoned mine in the deepest, most desolate part of a desert.
Now, for the first time, Nina has the chance to do something about the serial killer that no one else knows exists. With the help of her former best friend, Warren, she tracks the Thief two thousand miles, to his home turf-the deserts of New Mexico.
But the man she meets there seems nothing like the brutal sociopath with whom she’s had a disturbing connection her whole life. To anyone else, Dylan Shadwell is exactly what he appears to be: a young veteran committed to his girlfriend and her young daughter. As Nina spends more time with him, she begins to doubt the truth she once held as certain: Dylan Shadwell is the Thief. She even starts to wonder . . . what if there is no Thief?
From debut author Margot Harrison comes a brilliantly twisted psychological thriller that asks which is more terrifying: the possibility that your nightmares are real . . . or the possibility that they begin and end with you?
Copyright © 2016 by Margot Harrison
Cover design by Maria Elias
Cover illustration by Shane Rebenschied
Additional cover photographs © Shutterstock
Designed by Maria Elias
All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
In memory of Max, who was here for the beginning of this book but not the end
Sharp spring wind blows from the river as I stand at our town’s last pay phone and punch in the number. My hands shake so hard I drop two of my quarters and have to kneel and scrounge for them in the dark.
At last the long-distance call rings through. A woman’s voice, almost as deep as a man’s, snaps, “Hello?”
Blood thunders in my ears. I don’t know if I can do this.
“Hello? Hello?” She’s about to slam down the phone.
I use a voice I’ve practiced, a little lower than my own. “Mrs. Gustafsson?”
Her voice softens. “Can I help you?”
This is it. No turning back.
“Mrs. Gustafsson,” I whisper into the receiver, “please double-lock your doors and be extra careful for the next couple of days. Maybe go and stay with relatives. Someone could be watching your house, and I think he means you harm.”
Means you harm. I memorized the wording, ominous yet vague.
I can’t say, He wants to come like a thief in the night and kill you before you can scream, and bury you where you’ll never be found.
A couple seconds of silence. When Mrs. Gustafsson comes back, her voice drips suspicion. “Who’m I speaking to here? Cop? Neighborhood watch? FBI?”
Hang up. Just hang up.
“I can’t tell you,” I say. “Please listen to me. He could be there as soon as Friday.”
“You got an out-of-town number. What do you know about my neighborhood? Are you one of Abby’s girls?”
I should’ve used a burner phone. If anything does happen to the Gustafssons, the cops will look at their call record and see my town.
The receiver feels like it weighs twenty pounds as I hang up. The Sunoco sign glares above me, and the bell on the mini-mart’s door tings, too bright and loud. I’m probably on the security footage. Careless. You know better. My hair’s moist with sweat under the ski hat, my bulky sweatshirt sticking to me. My eyes are wet, too.
I should have said more, but what?
She doesn’t believe me. She won’t take precautions. When he comes for her and her husband, she’ll be at home in bed, sleeping soundly, worried about nothing worse than one of Abby’s girls prank-calling her. Whoever they are.
I know it’s going to happen, and I can’t stop it.
He calls himself the Thief in the Night. He likes to think he’s invisible. That’s why he doesn’t talk, doesn’t torture, doesn’t interact with them until he has to. Like death itself.
“They” are his victims. He calls them “targets.”
First came the old man. Then the homeless guy. The hitchhiker. The lady who ran the campground. The woman in the honky-tonk parking lot.
And now this couple in upstate New York, the Gustafssons.
He found them two Mondays ago when he was in Schenectady for a scale-model conference. He hadn’t planned to get into any trouble there (his private code word for killing somebody is “trouble”). But his eyelids felt gritty, the telltale sign he wouldn’t be able to sleep, and the left lid kept twitching like it sometimes does. He should’ve pinched a couple Ambien from his girlfriend back in Albuquerque, but it was too late now. So he slid the battery out of his phone, took a random exit into a quiet neighborhood of little ranch houses, and went hunting.
He looked for a house with no dog, no kids’ toys, access through the garage, a master bedroom facing away from the street.
He found one.
He hadn’t brought any tools, so everything stayed theoretical. When he hunkered down behind a bare lilac bush and examined the house, he saw it as a puzzle. A mission.
As always, his senses (my senses) heightened as he set the scene. He mapped the course of entry, noticing in passing that the man silhouetted against the flat-screen TV was heavyset with a sloping gut. A kid’s punch would push the poor bastard over. In a few years, a coronary might get him.
When the Thief came back for the couple, he’d simply speed nature along.
He’d swing back here after the second leg of his trip and chauffeur them to their resting place. The crooked little cabin with the ice-water brook that he’d found on the way here, when he took a wrong turn off the ramp and drove halfway up a mountain.
He spent a few hours there—not planning anything yet, just eating his rest stop takeout and enjoying the desolation. Now he realized it was a good place. It needed someone.
The Thief watched the couple zone out in front of the TV, closing their eyes and ears to reality. Reality is bone-dry, vast, beautiful in its indifference, like the desert where the Thief grew up, or the cold blue sky above it.
Like reality, he’s always here, whether they know it or not. Always waiting.
After I make the pay-phone call to Mrs. Gustafsson, I can’t stop thinking about the house in Schenectady. The garage with a window cracked open; the car sitting inside, unlocked. (He knows how rarely people lock anything.) He was in that garage, but he didn’t shatter the glass panel of the door leading into the house. He needed supplies. And the mood wasn’t quite right.
Maybe he won’t come back.
At nine P.M., I brew a pot of coffee, hoping my mom won’t hear the burping of the old percolator. I want to stay awake so badly that I almost text Warren Witter to see if he’ll sell me a couple Adderall.
Just a few more pills wouldn’t hurt me too much, would they? One more sleepless night? Two?
Thinking about Warren makes me clench up inside. I can already hear the disappointed flinch in his voice as he realizes I’ve relapsed. Really, Nina? You sure?
Warren’s liked me since before the pills. Since before everything.
About a year ago, I first discovered I could use caffeine in drink and pill forms to rev myself awake every night, all night. No longer would I sleep, blissfully unaware, while predators roamed the world. I would be like him—nocturnal.
There were downsides to scoring a victory over my natural sleep patterns. Limited to catnaps in the daytime, I was always either wired or tired, and I once missed a big history test because I passed out under a library table.
That didn’t stop me from wanting stronger uppers than I could get over the counter. In homeroom, I overheard Addison Doucette advising Lauren Grayson on where to get a “little pick-me-up” so she could study all night for her algebra midterm. “Ask Warren Witter. His brothers can get him anything.”
I didn’t believe it at first. Warren’s brothers are bad news, but him dealing drugs? Back in eighth grade, when we were friends for nearly a year, he was a skinny, quiet kid, his nose always stuck in a paperback with a spaceship on the cover.
Warren hadn’t changed much after two years. When I cornered him at his locker and asked about this alleged pick-me-up supply, his face went beet red.
He hid it by bending to adjust his books. “Addy Doucette sent you, huh?”
“Got a big test coming up?”
I was blushing by then, too. “Lots of tests.”
“Yeah-huh. Are you sure you want to get into that shit, Nina?” His eyes looked watery, like I was causing an allergic reaction.
“You’re a great salesman,” I said.
Warren grinned, and the smile reached his narrow, heavy-lidded eyes, which had always struck me as secretive. His long face had filled out since middle school, with cheeks to balance the cheekbones. Maybe another girl, one who didn’t remember how his nose ran all winter in sixth grade and he swiped it with actual cloth handkerchiefs his mom made him bring to school, would have thought his half-shy, half-sly smile was sexy.
“Meet me in the cedars behind the soccer field,” he said.
And he sold me the pills, though each time afterward he asked me if I was sure I wanted them.
Thus began my beautiful—beautifully convenient, anyway—second friendship with Warren Witter, which lasted until my mom found my stash of Adderall and learned I was capable of keeping secrets from her.
How many secrets, she still has no clue.
But I don’t feel like seeing Warren’s disappointment right now. And so I gulp coffee and try to murder sleep.
When I read that line about murdering sleep in Macbeth during freshman English, I thought, God, if only. Then I realized that Shakespeare means Macbeth’s guilty conscience is keeping him awake.
Some people have no conscience, though. And I, for one, would rather do anything than sleep.
I catch a few fitful hours of rest near dawn—not enough to stop my head from pounding with fatigue the next day, or my eyelids from fluttering shut while Ms. Blenner gets irrationally excited about differential equations. I hate how vulnerable I feel when the world goes fuzzy like this, one big blind spot with me at the center. Anyone could surprise me now.
Open your eyes. Pinch yourself. Coward.
When I do text Warren, during third period, I have a new plan. And a jumbo travel mug of crappy cafeteria coffee.
We meet after school in the cedars on the edge of the soccer field. Warren greets me way too enthusiastically, tripping over his words, but when I tell him what I want instead of pills, his expression darkens.
“Nina,” he says, his eyes going to pained slits.
“What? Do you think I’m going to hurt myself?” His expression says, Yeah, maybe, so I cross my arms and try to look angry. “You watch too many PSAs. It’s for protection.”
“Protection, yeah. That’s smart.” But he still looks doubtful. “Look, if you’re worried about something or somebody—maybe I could help?”
It’s hard to see Warren as tough when I still remember him as a shoelace in a camo jacket. That jacket fits tighter now, and the T-shirt underneath shows me slopes of lean muscle, but he’ll never exactly be a hulking menace.
I like how he’s turned out, and I know he feels the same about me, though I wonder why. He needs someone simple and wholesome.
You belong in a Nick Cave song, a cute counselor once told me at summer camp, back before my night terrors ruled out summer camp, flirting, and sleepovers. Kinda disheveled and pale, with those huge eyes of yours. Like the heroine of a murder ballad.
Since then, I’ve learned what “murder ballads” are and how they end—with the pale heroine’s eyes vacant and dead. Warren deserves better than that kind of drama.
Maybe he wants to save me. Life in this town is so freaking boring, and Warren’s a mystery and true-crime nut. He must be desperate for thrills; I have more than I can handle. I could give him a few.
“Somebody stalking you?” he asks, eyes narrow again.
“No,” I say. “I’m going to drive to Schenectady to catch an interstate serial killer.”
Warren tilts his head and nods, waiting for me to continue with what he must think is a deadpan comedy riff. He doesn’t edge away like I’m crazy—good.
“In my secret life, I’m the youngest-ever FBI profiler,” I go on. “I need to check out a tip on an unsub.”
“The FBI didn’t give you a piece?”
“They say I’m too young to pack heat.”
Warren makes his index finger into a gun, fires it, blows off the smoke. “A dame like you is never too young.”
I grin in spite of myself. “So can you get me one? Maybe a thirty-eight?”
“What makes you think I know about guns, Nina Barrows?”
“You live off the grid,” I say, counting reasons on my fingers. “You bring venison jerky to school. Your dad writes letters to the paper about preserving our Second Amendment rights.”
It’s another of our comedy routines: I rib him for being a woodchuck, which is Vermont for “redneck,” and he fires back “bleeding heart” and “tree hugger.” Labels that fit our parents better than us, but don’t really fit anyone.
He says, “News flash: venison is a sustainable protein. If the apocalypse happens, you’ll be lucky to have a hunter on your side. And my dad and I are two different people.”
“So you hate guns.”
“Not that simple.”
“So you like guns. You use them to get sustainable protein, right?”
My boy-relating skills suck. Jocks, preppies, cute hipsters, bad boys—I can barely meet their eyes. Not in a million years could I approach Warren’s older brothers, who are twice his size and have a long history of getting tossed in juvie or the state pen. I’m sure they could get me a gun, no questions asked.
Warren’s still the boy who invites the unpopular girls to dance. Who doesn’t ask the weird girl too many questions when she tells him weird things. Who might help her.
A double murder could happen this week a hundred and sixty-six miles from where we stand, and I can’t let it. Not this time.
“I have a deer rifle, but that and a thirty-eight pistol are about as much alike as you and Kayla Pinkett,” Warren says.
Kayla leads the pep squad. Bouncy ponytail, bouncy C-cups. “Ouch,” I say.
“Hey, I didn’t mean it in a bad way.”
He looks genuinely apologetic, and I feel a stab of something I can’t identify. He likes me. What’s wrong with him?
“Anyway, lucky for you, Nina, we live in a sportsman’s wonderland where guns can be sold freely to anyone over sixteen,” he says. “Your best bet is Tim’s General Store on Route Twelve.”
“I’ll still need to learn to use it.” I know how guns feel in your hand and how it feels to pull the trigger, but the intermediate steps are a blur. For the Thief in the Night, using guns is automatic, not worthy of concentration.
“You’ve never touched a firearm, have you? You’re such a tree hugger, I bet you’ve never even shot somebody in a video game.”
I don’t feel like playing our game right now. “Can you help me, or can’t you?”
“If you come by our place Friday afternoon, I’ll take you to the range. Show you the stance, give you pointers. Wouldn’t want you to shoot any innocent bystanders.”
The Witter place is creepy. It stretches up a hill and down into a long ravine, full of primo body-dumping sites.
But Warren’s safe. I know from the way he twitches when he looks at me, his eyes trying to suss out what I’m thinking. (Could she, just maybe, think it’s hot that I know about guns? If I help her with her stance, will we end up touching? Like, a lot?)
If he were a killer, he wouldn’t wonder or guess. He wouldn’t care what I thought or felt. My story would be his to write.
“You’ll have to drive,” I say. “Meet me here at three.”
When Warren and I finish talking, the buses are already chugging around the school driveway. It’s a woozy April day, no leaves popping yet, just soggy crocuses, the earth finally smelling like warm growth and rot as mud season draws to a close.
I get off the bus downtown and walk the rest of the way, thinking about gun stores. Warren is right: we’re a gung-ho gun state, and a .38 is easier for me to get than liquor. My heart still pounds when I think about holding one. And what I might do with it.
I keep an eye on my surroundings. Our state capital is a small town, but not too small for strangers, and I notice them with every step, especially the guys: old men and young men and boys horsing around, hauling crates, looking at their phones, lighting cigarettes.
One young guy looks at me and half smiles. When I start climbing College Hill and glance back, there he still is, ten feet behind me.
He’s pale with fuzzy black hair and a plaid shirt, probably a student headed for a lecture.
Still. He looked. He smiled. He has threat potential. I glance back every thirty seconds, not too often, and close a fist on the pepper spray in my coat pocket.
I also carry a Swiss Army Knife. Better than keys if you’re going for the eyes.
If Plaid Shirt happened to be the Thief—which he’s not—my being armed wouldn’t worry him. A weapon, as far as the Thief is concerned, is something to take away from your victim and use against them. Weapons make people overconfident unless they’re trained cops or soldiers, which his victims never are. Confidence makes people stupid.
With all the Thief has taught me about being on the other side, the hunter’s side, I shouldn’t be so scared. But I know my natural role is prey, not predator.
This dude is gaining on me like he’s late for a lecture or a hot date. My eyes sweep the street.
Jazz floats from an open apartment window. A gray-haired couple feeds a parking meter fifty feet up the hill. He could pull me into an alley, and they wouldn’t notice a thing.
Someone might see from a window, though, and the Thief doesn’t like risks. If he killed me here and now, it would be a nineteen-, twenty-point kill. Twenty points is the top of his scale, a number he’s never reached.
Victorian rentals, tin mailboxes, and robin-mobbed lawns fly by. This is not the Thief—can’t be. I know where the Thief is, more or less. I’ve monitored his progress since he cased the Gustafssons’ house.
The Thief lives in New Mexico, two thousand miles from Schenectady. After the scale-modeling conference, he headed north to visit a friend with a cabin in Ontario. He cached his two rifles in a deep trench off I-90 before he crossed the border, along with his newly bought supplies. Eight days ago, he was driving to Canada, dirt under his fingernails. He could still feel the cold of the earth from digging the cache, the satisfying heft of his shovel.
Schenectady is a detour from his route home, but he will return. He wouldn’t have made that cache otherwise. Like me, he can’t stop thinking about the Gustafssons’ ranch house.
But he’s been sleeping better than me. Since he reached his friend’s cabin, he’s been going to bed early, exhausted from hiking and fishing and whatever other manly men stuff they have on the agenda.
On Sunday evening, he called his girlfriend, Eliana, who has a silky curtain of black hair, an elegant nose, and a desk job with benefits. The kind of girlfriend a nice, steady, attractive guy would have.
She doesn’t know him like I do.
They talked about Eliana’s four-year-old daughter, Trixie. “She’s been bugging me about wanting to furnish the dolls’ attic. I told her attics don’t need furniture,” Eliana said.
“Sure they do,” the Thief objected. “I’ll stick a busted couch and some clutter up there.”
“Yeah, if you’re around, hon. Putting major miles on that Sequoia, huh? I thought this was gonna be a two-week trip.”
“I’ll be back a week from Tuesday. Promise.”
Every time Eliana gets weird about all the traveling he does, the Thief uses that tone of voice. If he were home right now, he’d touch her face. She’d melt toward him, and he’d draw her into his arms.
He moved into Eliana’s house a year and eight months ago. Trixie’s real dad is out of the picture. The Thief made the kid a dollhouse; he reads her stories about talking foxes and hedgehogs. Those two are the best things in his life, and he can’t, won’t, lose them.
He’s careful. He’s always got modeling and carpentry stuff in his Sequoia, so he can tell Eliana he’s delivering to a distant client. Crafting minutely detailed models of historical sites is the Thief’s passion. He builds cabinets and beds and bureaus for clients all over the Southwest, and insists on delivering everything himself.
I have two logbooks. One with dates, where I record his movements, and one where I note down every single thing I know about him.
I know his name, and my research probably would have told me his street address. But when I found the Web site for his home business, I couldn’t click the link.
Some crazy superstitious part of me thought that if I saw his photo, he’d see me, too. Memorize my face. Know me.
Yesterday, the day I tried to warn the Gustafssons, was Tuesday again, a week after the Thief left for Canada. If he plans to be in Albuquerque next Tuesday, he’ll need to return to Schenectady by Friday or Saturday at the latest.
The Gustafssons’ house is on a dark block of ranches leading to an intersection where a sign reads 890 VIA CHRISLER AVENUE. I’ve found it on Google Street View.
Friday, then. Day after tomorrow. I should’ve gone home with Warren today, made him take me out to the range, convinced him to lend me a handgun.
For what? It’s not like I’m going to step into the Thief’s path and yell Stop! My phone call to the Gustafssons was a waste of time.
The Thief is a soldier, a woodsman, a tinkerer, the kind of person who survives a zombie apocalypse. I am a nervous honor student.
And now that I know what he’s going to do, I’m his accomplice.
My whole body goes so hot and tight that I barely notice the brick college buildings appearing over the hill. I nearly crash into a kid with red dreads coming the opposite way, who calls, “Hey, bro, how’d last night go?”
He’s not addressing me—and I turn to find Plaid Shirt. I’d forgotten all about him.
“Not bad,” Plaid Shirt says, fist-bumping the kid with dreadlocks and grinning. “Went home with that girl with the tongue piercing.”
I’m staring at them, yet neither gives me a single glance. My body goes lax with relief.
Like the Thief, I pass as normal, just another person on the street. No one suspects. No one knows.
When I get home, the first thing I notice is the security system: not armed. The second thing I notice is the windows. Mom’s cracked open two in the living room and one in the kitchen, letting in the smell of earth.
Mom thinks open windows are just part of enjoying warm weather, even at night. She has friends who don’t lock their doors.
I start to text her a reminder about arming the system, when something catches my eye—a raffia handbag on the coffee table. It’s not mine, and it’s not hers, so—
A stranger’s in the house.
I put down my phone, gingerly, and tiptoe into the living room. That’s when Mom and seven other women lurch from behind the couch and surge from under the kitchen island and bellow, “Surprise!”
I scream. Not happy-scream, really scream.
The women are wearing goofy party hats and glittery feather boas and are all talking at once, too fast, like they started drinking Mom’s white wine before I arrived. When they see I’m still standing there with my hands over my mouth, my eyes panicky wide, they flock around and make reassuring noises.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, kiddo.”
“Did you forget it was your birthday?”
I let my hands fall and force out a laugh. No, I didn’t forget—just assumed that Mom would make me filet mignon and aioli fries to go with the bakery cake, like she usually does, and we’d have a quiet evening together.
I dodge explanations by hugging Suzy Wolfsheim, the tough-as-nails assistant state’s attorney and my favorite of my mom’s friends.
People are more likely to trust you when you hug them—another thing I’ve learned from the Thief.
- "Flowing and expressive prose paints a clear picture of Nina and Warren as they follow the Thief, wavering between certainty and doubt, both with regard to the killer and each other. The teens are smart, self-aware, believable characters, and a budding romance between the two adds another layer to the work without detracting from the story line. Nina's secret and multiple plot twists will keep readers guessing until the end... A must-read debut for fans of fast-paced, eerie psychological thrillers who won't mind reading late into the night."—School Library Journal
- "The narrative simmers with tender secrets, mystifying memories, and supernatural connections. While the debut thriller's twists and turns will draw readers in, it is the novel's palpable heart that guarantees they won't let go."—Booklist
- "The plot twists and turns like a sidewinding rattlesnake through the scorching heat of the desert setting; even savvy readers won't be able to trust their instincts until all the clues line up, just before a startling ending brings painful emotional impact for Nina and Warren."—BCCB
- *"Harrison expertly shapes a sharp, tense narrative, told alternately in Nina and Warren's points of view, as Nina confronts terrifying personal truths and must fight for everything she holds dear. Taut storytelling and believable characters make this a standout mystery, with paranormal notes adding another layer of complexity."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
Accolades2017 Vermont Book Award, finalist
- On Sale
- Jul 4, 2016
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
About the Author
Margot Harrison is the author of the YA thrillers We Made It All Up, The Glare, and The Killer in Me, which was a finalist for the Vermont Book Award. She writes for the newspaper Seven Days and posts vintage YA book reviews and skits about her weird childhood on TikTok @MargotFHarrison.